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Drug dealer gets life for 'hit'

Gabriel Martinez used a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol to settle a dispute over money with one of his customers in the drug trade. The 2005 execution of Lee Avila came after the victim offered to pay his drug debt by turning over a new car - or...

Gabriel Martinez used a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol to settle a dispute over money with one of his customers in the drug trade.

The 2005 execution of Lee Avila came after the victim offered to pay his drug debt by turning over a new car - or at least to spare the two children who saw the murder take place.

Martinez ignored both requests, then shot Avila nine times, first in the groin and throat, and then in the back.

On the drive back to Fargo, Martinez told an accomplice that Avila, a former "Ultimate Fighting" contestant, had accepted his death like a soldier.

A poster taped to a wall in Avila's trailer home proclaimed, with chilling foresight, "We will spare no one."

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It was Martinez's turn to accept his punishment Friday, when he appeared in U.S. District Court for his leading role in what federal officials call Operation Speed Racer, a ring that smuggled drugs from Mexico and the West Coast to peddle in the Red River Valley.

Martinez, who pleaded guilty two days into his trial last April, faced a mandatory minimum of 30 years and a maximum of four possible life sentences.

His own brother was among dozens of co-defendants who had already pleaded guilty in the case and could have been called as witnesses against him at trial.

After his guilty plea, Martinez tried to escape from jail, enmeshing two female jailers in the foiled attempt, discovered after other officers spotted the bars that had almost been sawed through.

This fall, while in the Cass County Jail awaiting Friday's sentencing hearing, he assaulted another inmate.

And long before those offenses occurred, Martinez was convicted of five violent crimes, one involving a beating with a crow bar, dating back to his days as a juvenile.

He was, prosecutor Chris Myers said Friday, a dangerous career criminal.

Too dangerous, the judge decided, to risk a sentence of less than life in prison.

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Martinez, despite his contrite apology during the hearing to his many victims, had displayed what the judge called a "hardness of heart."

The defense argued that Martinez was simply a tool of Jorge "Sneaky" Arandas, the ring's kingpin, who received 40 years - a sentence reflecting his "significant cooperation" with authorities, leading to his suppliers among the Mexican drug cartels.

"This was really a kill or be killed organization," defense lawyer Marlo Caddedu told the judge, arguing Martinez had little choice and no authority.

A life sentence would turn justice upside down, given the lighter sentence for Arandas, she said.

"Frankly, he and he alone made the decision to kill," Myers countered in rebuttal, having earlier said that Avila, although a drug dealer, didn't deserve to die.

Chessiqua Vargas, Avila's sister and the mother of a 4-year-old girl who witnessed her uncle's murder, said her daughter is haunted by the slaying, suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression.

"I would like the court to set an example that you guys aren't going to tolerate these drug dealers," she told the judge. "My family has suffered a lot. We paid a high price."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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